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Stunning Interior Images Without Lighting Equipment

Published: 18/03/2008
By: larry

Think you need to use lighting equipment to get a bright interior? Think again! This tour is shot by a company based in Seattle called Vista Estate. Vista Estate's approach is to shoot with no lighting equipment. This is one of their sample tours that shows what you can do without any extra lighting equipment, just a tripod and post processing work.

I can't tell you exactly what techniques they are using. It's obviously some derivative of HDR processing or blending. Most of the images are well done HDR because they don't have the things tell tale HDR look. I'd love to reverse engineer exactly what techniques they are using.

Also the iFlyer tour format that Vista Estate Imaging is using is note worthy. It has a clean and elegant design and is the only tour I've seen that adapts (re-sizes the window) to vertical format images. Unfortunately, the only way to use this tour format is to have Vista Estate do you photos. Vicaso is the name of the company that does the web development for Vista Estate Imaging.

One of the interesting aspects of doing this blog has been seeing the different approaches photographers have to make interiors bright. Everyone that gets into this business seems to have a natural inclination to either use some form of lighting equipment or to do more or even all of the job in post processing. Scott Hargis, Thomas Grubba and M. James Northen are contributors to the PFRE flickr group that are notable practitioners lighting equipment approach while David Palermo and Vista Estate are practitioners of no or minimal lighting equipment approach.

57 comments on “Stunning Interior Images Without Lighting Equipment”

  1. Wow - that's a lot of HDR action! It's cool to see such great results. As you said Larry, it'd be very interesting to hear about their technique!

    The kitchen shot on the 4529 34th shoot you linked to is a little too saturated, and you can see the reflection of the photog and his tripod in the cabinet. Oops!

  2. Those are really spectacular images. My guess is that it's probably HDR or Enfuse processing. In our experience, Enfuse produces more realistic output than HDR, and in much less time.

    You mentioned the iFlyer format as interesting because it maximizes viewing area for vertical images.

    My company offers a tour platform ( that is available to any real estate photographer. It was designed to maximize viewing area for all images and preserve full HD resolution and quality as well.

    The iFlyer format looks pretty good, but from a UI perspective I find it has many shortcomings. The "previous" and "next" buttons move, so you can't just click "next, next, next" without moving the mouse. Also, the thumbnail scrolling is a little difficult as you have to move the mouse to the edges to get it to scroll. The transitions and quality are nice though.

    I have posted a blog post on ActiveRain about the topic of User Interfaces for Virtual Tours if you are interested:

    Great blog, though, I love it!

  3. Thanks Larry for bringing this to our attention - I have to say I love the images, they are very much the look I like (but then I also love Scotts, Thomas' and MJs work too). I'll look forward to any input on how to achieve the 'look' but I think there is some subtle painting of light adding to their nice results. Avril

  4. I looked at their images and they are amazing in color and contrast. I would love to know how they achieved this look, but it certainly has some pop to it. If its just blending then they must really have a specific workflow down!

  5. What they do there is something similar with David action (he posted it a while ago on flikr discussion) + some local contrast procedures + some enhancements.

    What puzzles me is how they manage to get 15 images at that quality for $250. That means some automatic workflow... I wish I could say what would be that one.

  6. Those are amazing!!! I read on the site that they dont use any lighting equipment at all. This is definitely the future of HDR. They must have developed something custom to get around the current limitations of HDR (hands-on & extremely time consuming from my experience) Either that, or they have a business plan that is just loosing them money everyday!

  7. If photographers needs to keep their cost down and increase the productivity to be price competitive, I think the HDR processing with automatic workflow will be the key to even make it possible.

    I personally don't know how to use PS but I love photomatix when I try it for the first time and thought it was easy and quick.

    Thanks for the info. I do love their photos.

  8. Michael, your's looks great. Was that with David's action? Two exposures or several? Thanks for posting, ears pricked and ready to learn!

  9. Well, personally I think they all look extremely over processed and artificial. HDR still has yet to impress me. Theres no depth with all the shadows removed. Every object (especially straight lines) have heavy artifacts from lightroom "clarity" being jacked up (thats the glow effect). not to mention how oversharpened and oversaturated the colors are. I appriciate the effort and understand what they are trying to do (and understand their clients are clueless about fine photography) but really think the picture impress due to being so bright and cartoon like. Submit them to BH&G or Architectural Digest and im sure the editors would have a nice chuckle.

  10. Larry,
    I have a interesting story related to Vista Estate (iFlyer). My most frequent RE Agent client recently had a seller that demanded this Seattle base firm redo my virtual tour. I did one last Fall on Bainbridge Island and the house still hasn’t sold. The seller saw an iFlyer listing and was impressed. My Agent client went ahead and hired them to redo the tour. Their photography was clearly better than mine and shown with a better viewer. Since then I’ve changed most everything about my business (e.g., camera equipment + wide angle lens, use of HDR with Photomatix Pro, new full screen viewer, etc.). My learning curve in the past 2+ years of RE work has been pretty steep. I asked her if I had been permanently replaced. She said no and proved it about 2 weeks ago. I did another tour for her. She and the owner seem happy with the results. So maybe the iFlyer folks haven’t taken over my turf yet. See the iFlyer Bainbridge Island tour and my latest Gig Harbor tour at the below links.

  11. I would tend to agree with Michael Zigler, they seemed a bit over processed and over saturated to me. It's better than most HDR I have seen, but they still look over worked, and don't have the warm inviting feeling to them that I see from some of the other photographers on the Flickr group.

  12. Looks to me what they are doing is "light harvesting" meaning they are exposing 5-10 shots per scene then copying/pasting various areas of the well exposed areas into a "main" image. The "main" image is probably the already processed HDR image. I agree about the cartoony look and that it's sort of bothersome to me. Also the second image in the 4529 34th South Seattle slideshow shows that the vase has been cloned or pasted or something because it's off. I am thinking these guys post processing tries to be very quick and mistakes are (understandably) made considering they are charging so little money for what in reality is a LOT of work in post.

    Also, I do see the tell tale artifacts of HDR though. Light lines around windows are a giveaway either to selecting each window and pasting good imagery in or the halos of HDR. It's all there if you look closely. Also take a look at the shadows of objects.. in some images it does look like they use some soft fill lighting. Look at the 3rd image down in 4529 34th South Seattle slideshow. Under the bed you can see how the bedsheet shines as if there is a light hitting it... either there is a window behind the photographer or light is bounced into that area. You cannot get a shine like that with no light! Also from what I can see it only says, "Trueview eliminates the need for expensive lighting." It does not say they don't use any fill light. Could be inexpensive lighting! ; ) When I photographed the cockpits of aircraft at the Smithsonian I used off the shelf $4.95 lights from Home Depot. Not expensive lighting. of course I used 10 or so of them!

  13. @Mike Martin, I just looked at your tour linked in your post and the colors just don't look natural to me. Plus there are some horrible shadows on the exterior shots. If you get a chance, take a look at the HDR that David Palermo does. It has a much more natural look and feel to it. Some of the images were composed nicely, they just didn't look real to me. I'm not trying to be mean here, just trying to point out a few things to look out for.

  14. In terms of the slideshow (on the 4529 34th St house)... either the house has two mirror image bathrooms, or somebody put the same shot in twice, one reversed...

  15. Yep. I think you pretty much nailed it dead on David. Although I'm not sure these folks even bother with that many images for their "harvest".

    This looks remarkably similar to stuff we were doing for a local home rental agency a couple of years back. Out of economic necessity my workflow at the time was average reading, one @ two stops over, one @ four stops over (yes, full stops to keep everything nice and bright) and another separate exposure for the exterior. Blended with PhotoMatix Pro, using the manual sliders with a bias toward light just approaching the objectionable halo zone. I would then use that blended image as the base for a few more steps - pasting the HDR over the exterior exposure and with an appropriate feather on the lasso begin cutting away the blown out windows. Flatten, paste this version over the two stop over exposed one and quickly reverse the procedure with a nice fat transparent eraser for deep shadows. Flatten, again, add a little contrast and saturation bump to minimize the HDR look and voila! Crude, quick, and just about bullet proof. At least for web work that is...

    The reason I think they are also doing it in a similar way is the tell tale very tight 3-5px fringing around any windows not in shadow. Not exactly a typical HDR artifact but definitely a typical feathered selection tool artifact. Another more telling sign however is anywhere plants, pillows, statuettes, etc. converge with window glass. Nobody in a right thinking remotely productive mindset would ever try to select away those tight areas - so if you look closely enough you'll see where they just cut a swath right through them and then judiciously erase to blend it back in (there are many more but the flowers in #10 from the top are a perfect example). I think the reverse technique might also account for the "lighting" under the bed. If you look at the area where that begins to gradate, it looks as though they used a big bold erase and minimal transparency to tone down what would otherwise have been a very reflective and distracting carpet runner beneath the window? Getting too close to the bedspread working from a light layer to a dark one would have left very dark edges on the bedspread; which I think you can see starting to happen on the right hand side (squint a little) where coincidentally there is also much less carpet "glow".

    Believe it or not, depending on the dynamic range and complexity of the scene, with enough practice you can easily get it down to somewhere between an art and a science doing it this way - like these obviously proficient folks seem to have done. It really doesn't take all that much PP time. Depending on what you charge, 5 - 10 minutes or so per image isn't too bad at all. Like many others here though I find the over-processed look of these images slightly off putting now, but you have to admit the vast majority of clients absolutely love them.

    By the way, David your PS action is arguably the single most useful thing I've ever lifted from the net. Thank you for that great contribution!

  16. David, that "Trueview HD" is a term they invented... for the Tutfuse or Enfuse process they do. Looking more thoroughly I saw the characteristic halos that process gives. To bad there is no cure yet for that 🙂

    has nothing to do with the Trueview, the real thing. I dont think they use any lights... not even fill.

  17. @ David Toman or David Palermo,

    I'm new to this website, and also new to realty photography. I just starting to lay the foundations for a part time business, and I'm very interested in these actions people keep mentioning.

    As my budget is very small, I like the idea of getting so much out of little lighting.

    Could you post a link to where I can get the actions?

    I'm excited to get involved here...


  18. I'm also new to this web site and have found this discussion very interesting. Someone earlier mentioned enfuse, which I had not heard of, so a quick search turned up this link, which you guys may know about already.

    I downloaded the trial version and posted my first results here.

    I took a quick series of 9 exposures of my dining room, including the view out the window, with no additional lighting. I varied the exposure 1 stop between each shot, and spent no more than 5 minutes in all. Photo 10 is the merged result (with no adjustments) of all the exposures. It took about 30 sec on my iMac. LREnfuse has some adjustment settings which I haven't figured out yet (Does anyone have experience with this?). For instance, the shadows in the merged image are much darker than the shadows in the lightest of the sequence.

    Until now I have been using a combination of off camera flash and blending multiple exposures (with layer masks) in CS3 but it is very time consuming. LREnfuse looks like it will save me loads of time. The trial version will let you save images up to 500 pixels, which is kind of limited for evaluating image quality. To unlock the full version (and save full resolution images) you have to make a donation. I hope others will post their experiences. Sorry for the long first post, I just got really excited about this.

  19. Enfuse is cool but no magic bullet yet. The good thing is that it's work in progress. I find using to many images goes into bad results with enfuse. I'm still trying to understand what the optimal number is. It depends from scene to scene, but I think something like 5 shots with a 1 2/3 stops between will do the trick. Play with levels numbers. Auto will do the trick but from time to time is recommended to try different ones.

  20. I have shot with these guys in the same house at the same time...there is NO lighting equipment and no fill.

    Slowly trying to master the skills others, clients are happy, but I am not....not yet.

    David {s}....thank you for all the tips!


  21. Larry, thanks for the article link. It's a great read.

    So you enfuse 7 shots taken at 1 step in between with the middle one the average exposure?

  22. Nice! What was your workflow there? Enfuse or Photomatix? I dont see the enfuse halos tho...

  23. Some of this stuff looks OK but most looks really artificial.
    The subtle light differences which would be on the wall of the lounge shot are all tonally dead.This is terrible.
    Doesnt anyone else see this??

  24. The one at the begining of the thread.
    It looks awful.
    It would be nice to see the RAWs

  25. Carlos: I don't think it's "awful". If one inspects it closely you can start seeing some flaws but this is not art - these are RE pics with a life - span of a few weeks. I think the work generally is pretty good. Especially since no external lighting is used.

  26. It's meant to be a way for fast results & little money at a quality above average (way beyond). It's a good thing...

  27. Yeah David I know, I just like good work.
    The whole back wall looks like its been painted with white on a layer ,All images have a soul, a few of these have lost it....if you get what i mean....they look ok but lack life.
    It looks to me like the person doing this work has spent some time dropping in windows, recolouring wall it just the look that is my opinion.
    We may as well do a good job, I can see we all agree, some are making a few excuses for the work,yep some of it is good and some not so good.

    One final word , if we drop our standards on this site then what is the point, the person we are critiquing gets the wrong feedback , never improves.I would leave some of the subtle tonal changes and hues on the wall, it will add depth and bring the work to life.

  28. Does anyone know any contacts for Canon .
    I have a few ideas.

    Old ideas I was taught as an apprentice in back in 1973.

  29. I work in the same locale as this company and I can tell you that a lot of realtors go gah gah over this style. They do a huge amount of business. Fortunately some don't like it and prefer my images. I like the way some of these hdr images come out but I don't care for a lot of it. I think I'll stick with what I'm doing. Maybe use hdr in special situations.

    My friend and realtor makes the same comments about the artificial quality to the images.

  30. I think they are great, even with some mistakes or if they look artificial . But the main thing is that customers will love them! and this is the most important thing.

  31. I just found this thread, and I just wanted to voice my gratitude for the time and effort you all spent sharing your analysis, techniques, and experience. I've been doing PFRE for less than a year now, and in an attempt to keep up with the "big dogs" am ending up spending way too much time doing RAW processing.

    So thank you David, David, Michael, Larry, everybody... for the information and the wonderful resources. I sincerely appreciate your contributions.

  32. Hey Larry, I have used this company before and you are right, the product is outstanding. I have observed the shoots for my listing and do know that the photographers put the camera in manual mode and take a series of 12 photos or more of a particular image ranging from complete over- exposure to complete underexposure. The turnaround is very day. I always thought it was HDR but based on your article, it must be some sort of a hybrid version. Who knows, maybe I can pick their brains and learn the process.

  33. I'm new to real estate photography - I mostly shoot weddings and portraits, but I'm looking to add RE photograph to have better year-round income. I am shooting some vacation rental pix for an friend next weekend, and this website has provided me with a ton of useful info, from copyright to property release to contracts to HDR. Thanks.

    The biggest reason I've decided to comment is that it appears no matter what form of photography people are practicing and sharing on forums/blogs, we are all very opinionated and critical of our own and others work...and that applies to myself as well. I like the cleanness and sharpness of the original iflyer South Seattle images, yes there are artifacts, and overprocessed-quality, and too bright here, too dark there...but I can totally see that most clients would love them...and THAT is what's important in the end. 99% of clients wouldn't notice all the flaws in the images, because they will have an emotional response to it, especially if it is their own home. A recent cover of Homes & Land looks, in my opinion, way too dark, with fluorescent red glow in the interior of the shot, and the scenery through the window has that surreal look. But the editor or art director or whoever apparently liked it.

    Yes, this style is a niche, a trend for the moment...just like reportage/photojournalism and spot colour were big for wedding photography 5 years ago, which has now been replaced by off-camera flash and fashion-style wedding photography. When we are shooting an assignment for someone else, we need to please the client (and it has to be cost-effective)...otherwise, it becomes a personal project and then we can get lost in the details. Just like with wedding photography at the moment, the trend is that stylized look, and when Mrs Smith wants to keep up with the Jones', she wants what they just had in terms of photography, and she wants HER house to look like all the other homes in BH&G and RE magazines.

  34. I'm not a professional photographer; just a dabbler when it comes to this stuff. But I will comment that while this style is eye catching, it has a surreal quality that I find unsettling. Some of the examples linked are nice and some of them have a "fake" look that makes one think they are looking at a cold museum display rather than a real home. I think of the effect seen in the movie Edward Scissorhands - unreal and even slightly eerie.

  35. I have been reading a lot of this website today and will continue to as I'm interested in producing HDR images for property. I have found this article to be very interesting and I just had a look at the flash HDR portfolio of this outfit. I think it does look impressive to offer clients this sort of thing, maybe not so much seasoned photographers.

  36. # Mark Henninger
    Hi Mark.
    I really like your images.
    May I ask how much time you sped processing your bracketed shots to achieve an end result like those in your gallery?


  37. Mark, your work is very nice. It is at a level that is well above typical real estate photography; and, for those images that rely on daylight for part or all of the ambient lighting, I would bet that you have the luxury and budget to wait for those times when the daylight is most favorable. This is not the case for most real estate photography, so HDR/tonemapping can be helpful when not using supplementary lighting (because of HDR's ability to deal with very high dynamic ranges that exposure fusion or Photoshop layering/masking may not be able to handle) and having to shoot the job as soon as possible, often without much choice about the time of day or the quality of the daylight. That said, in my experience, it is possible to avoid halos, muddiness and garish colors, etc., with HDR/tonemapping.

  38. David,
    I am an absolute beginner. I'm using Efex for my HDR, I shoot in RAW and use Lightroom to develop. The results are underwhelming and I'm getting increasingly discouraged. What I find is that the effects presets are garish, the colors grey and the photo is overall grainy - windows blown and room dark. Can you help a beginner find their way to better interior real estate photography.

  39. unreal looking... my clients would just laugh! I use minimal lighting and occasionally a bit of LR/enfuse. I generally omly use 3 exposures, about a stop apart. Thats about right... any more than 5 images takes too long on the computer!

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